Christie McLeod is changing the way lawyers think about climate change. A lawyer herself, this 32-year-old believes her profession has an ethical obligation to advise clients to advance climate justice.

This piece is part of a series of profiles highlighting young people across the country who are addressing the climate crisis. These extraordinary humans give me hope. I write these stories to pay it forward.

Christie McLeod at the Human Rights Watch headquarters in New York City. Photo provided by Christie McLeod

Tell us how lawyers can help.

Clients trust their lawyers to help them manage risk. Forest fires and resulting air pollution, catastrophic flooding and extreme heat have shown British Columbians some of the harsher faces of the emergency. Whether our clients are heavy industry, farmers, import-export enterprises, developers, small business owners, health-care workers, immigrants, municipalities, Indigenous people or families our advice must include an assessment of the changing environment, and the new laws developing in response.

We must also familiarize clients with the vast opportunities offered by the transition to renewable energy and sustainable living. As trusted advisers, we can help our clients create a better world.

Tell us about some of your efforts to reach lawyers.

I am active in Lawyers for Climate Justice (L4CJ), a Canadian group supporting a global effort to build climate competency in the legal system.

Climate change does not affect people equally. The communities that have contributed the least to climate change are already suffering its worst effects, both in Canada and abroad. This includes Indigenous peoples, who were already overrepresented in the Canadian justice system and whose communities and rights are increasingly threatened by the destabilized climate.

Christie McLeod is changing the way lawyers think about climate change. #YouthClimateAction #ClimateJustice

Every lawyer must swear an oath to uphold the rights and freedoms of everyone. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that climate destabilization threatens the enjoyment of all human rights, including rights to health, water, food, housing, self-determination and life itself.

Lawyers have an ethical responsibility to ensure we give advice that minimizes greenhouse gas emissions, protects the vulnerable from the resulting loss and damage of an already unstable climate and informs our clients about the risks and opportunities resulting from the changes.

Lawyers are also required to uphold the administration of justice. For instance, if the courts and offices that house lawmakers and judges or our prisons are unfit for a changing climate, our justice system breaks down.

Christie McLeod at the 2019 Climate Strike in Toronto. Photo provided by Christie McLeod

How did you get drawn into this project?

I have always seen the protection of human rights and the environment as inextricably connected. After completing my undergraduate studies in human rights and international development at the University of Winnipeg, I volunteered alongside Indigenous people from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation as they fought to have drinkable water. Shoal Lake is the drinking water source for Winnipeg, and it is unjust that First Nations people there had lived with boil water advisories for more than 20 years. I remember the day I downloaded an article written by legal scholar David Boyd arguing that access to drinking water on First Nations should be a constitutionally protected right and thinking: “I have to understand this better. I need to go to law school.”

During my studies at Osgoode Hall Law School and the York University environmental studies program, I drafted a letter signed by 500 lawyers, law faculty and law students calling on the federal government to adopt and legislate stronger emissions reduction targets.

I worked with Human Rights Watch's environmental and human rights division in New York City and Toronto and with West Coast Environmental Law. I am also the founder of Human Rights Hub Winnipeg and a volunteer researcher for the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty global steering committee.

What makes your work hard?

The current unfairness and injustices can seem overwhelming. But it helps that I get to help Indigenous peoples rectify some of that imbalance by representing them as they assert their rights with governments and energy project proponents. My firm, Miller Thompson, also has many corporate clients that want to meet or exceed environmental and human rights standards.

I am frustrated by Canada’s short-term thinking. For my entire lifetime, this mindset has prevented us from meeting any of our emission reduction targets. We are also still logging ancient forests for wood chips and boreal forest for toilet paper. Sometimes we seem unable to stop making the problem worse.

Christie McLeod joins participants in Inuvik for a program on climate policy and traditional knowledge organized by Youth Climate Lab, Gwich’in Tribal Council and Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. Photo provided by Christie McLeod

What gives you hope?

Government response to the pandemic shows we can respond effectively in an emergency. We need that political will for the climate crisis. The next generation is smart and brave and will stand for nothing less.

Do you have any advice for other young people?

Engage with your own communities. In 2019, I was feeling overwhelmed by the climate crisis but drafted a letter about a topic I had studied — emission reduction targets — and circulated it amongst law students and faculty members. Five-hundred signatures later, it was hard to ignore. You, too, can make a difference now.

What would you like to say to older people?

Use your influence, leadership and resources to speak up and put young people at the centre of your decision-making. It is their future.

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